Birmingham Royal Ballet – Ashton bill: The Dream, A Month in the Country – Birmingham

Birmingham Royal Ballet in <I>The Dream</I>.<br />© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)
Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Dream.
© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)

Birmingham Royal Ballet
The Dream, A Month in the Country

Birmingham, Hippodrome
matinee, 18 February 2016
Gallery of (first cast) pictures by Dave Morgan

When I think of Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) under David Bintley I think of tradition with a capital T and the latest double bill underlines that in spades.

Of the 5 UK companies they are the most ‘old school’ and rather notably at variance with where the other 4 companies are generally heading, indeed where many ballet companies around the world are heading. Elsewhere they generally look to maintain tradition in their various ways but also notably to inject a greater sense of fresh in their new works – fresh ideas from fresh choreographers. Of course David Bintley is a significant choreographer and sees it as his job to create for the company rather than curate a wider vision that involves leading international choreographers and younger rising stars (if there has been the occasional passing nod in both areas). With 5 UK companies, all different of course, there is space for one to do great old works and some new work but be less about pushing the art forward, though I can’t say I prefer it to the other approach.

The latest BRB bill really shows both the upside and the downside of their strategy – danced well, the two Frederick Ashton works are impeccable ballets, shouldn’t be lost and many audiences should see them. That BRB are so wedded to touring, rather than London, also means that more people can see some of what they do live, which makes such a difference. But does BRB really need to take on board A Month in The Country which was created on the Royal Ballet and gets regular outings there? Could the money and energy not have gone into something *new* rather than something 51 years old? And later in the season the company take in Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane (66 years old) and Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew (46 years old). Is all this ‘new to BRB’ old work the way ballet got to where it is? I write this in a week when we ran an interview with Alexander Ekman and which majored on his work Cacti being presented by many companies across the world – from a maverick choreographer, it’s a real breath of fresh air. And other ballet companies introduce fresh air from the likes of Pite, Wheeldon, Elo, Scarlett, McGregor, Peck, Dawson, Ratmansky, Barton, Possokhov… not to mention all the choreographers bubbling under.

Nothing of course is absolute and there is a bit of fresh air in BRB’s season when New York-based Jessica Lang creates a brand new work (Wink) for the mid-scale tour which can then be seen in Birmingham as part of the Shakespeare Triple Bill in June. Of course David Bentley is doing a new full-evening work this year – The Tempest – to tie in with the season’s Shakespeare theme. It’s to a commissioned score and I genuinely look forward to seeing it – I just wish Bintley’s pieces could be viewed in the context of seeing what other working choreographers of consequence can do with the company’s 60+ dancers – rather than the last Bintley creation. I think audiences, local, national and international would respond to freshly-minted diversity too.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Dream.© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)
Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Dream.
© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)

All that said, the Ashton double bill is here, a real goody and I hope that many have been able to take advantage of the £10 offer to see it. I was at the first matinee and the second cast were giving their first performances in both ballets. Strangely it was The Dream, which has been in Birmingham’s repertoire for nearly 50 years, that seemed to fare less well of the two ballets. But Ashton’s works are strongly constructed and a ballet that mixes Mendelssohn, fun, fairies, impeccable movement and yokels will often deliver dance happiness regardless. The strong points I thought were the corps fairies – noisy pointe shoes, maybe, but what an emphasis on feet and crystal-clear movement. We also had a crack team of lovers – Delia Mathews, Brandon Lawrence, Celine Gittens and Iain Mackay – who all performed strongly and with witty clarity. The singing of the girls from the Birmingham Cathedral Choir was also delightful and louder than we normally get in London – yeah!

Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Dream.© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)
Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Dream.
© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)

Elsewhere in The Dream the pickings were more thin. I found Cesar Morales Oberon and James Barton’s Puck not so electrifying – they both seemed too earthbound to be from another world, if Morales has some nice classical lines. Neither dominated the stage as you’d hope. Momoko Hirata’s Titania was musical but she seemed to be preoccupied by the tough steps rather than connecting with us out front. The Birmingham designs, by Peter Farmer, are notably different from the better known Royal Ballet designs of David Walker, and the costumes don’t work quite so well overall, if the woodland set is a stunner. Probably not down to Farmer, but the wig for Hirata looked very poor with ringlets flying out in all directions every time she moved.

Birmingham’s bad hair day continued into A Month in The Country with the wig for Tzu-Chao Chou’s Kolia ill-fitting and looking like a hand-me-down from a cheap Far East soap. Rory Mackay (as the husband), had a slightly better-fitting wig but it still had a look which would have people nudging one another, smiling and muttering ‘rug’. Wig oddities aside, there was much to like in Birmingham’s freshly-coached take on the Month. Samara Downs’ Natalia Petrovna was high on histrionics, but that’s the nature of the woman and as the performance wore on more naturalism crept in and the end was particularly moving. Also giving good accounts was Jamie Bond as Beliaev (tutor), an innocent in way out of his depth with all the female attention, and Laura Day’s Vera as the infatuated teenager – both hitting their characters dead right. And Yijing Zhang also impressed as Katia (the maid) – the cherry duet is a hard thing to get right.

Samara Downs and Jamie Bond in rehersals for A Month in the Country.© Andrew Ross. (Click image for larger version)
Samara Downs and Jamie Bond in rehersals for A Month in the Country.
© Andrew Ross. (Click image for larger version)

A Month in the Country might be old but it has so much to teach new choreographers about how you can gut a complex play or book down to 40 minutes of seamless riveting drama that makes you care. Ashton makes it all look so easy and yet so many (young) ballet choreographers wrestle with telling the short story effectively – just look at the recent reviews for Wheeldon’s Strapless for example. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s highly detailed and scrumptious designs we are unlikely ever to see the likes of again in new work (a shame), if they only just fitted the Hippodrome stage and would not be suitable for touring.

All up, it was good to see two of Ashton’s best works up in Birmingham and nice to be reminded of their choreographic and narrative excellence. We all need reminding of what we know, if the joy of the new is not knowing.

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